DETROIT -- A federal judge in Texas today declined to issue an emergency order forcing General Motors to tell owners of 2.6 million recalled cars to stop driving them immediately. A ruling on the matter could come next week instead.
GM told the court that it has conducted more than 80 tests showing that the cars it is recalling for faulty ignition switches are still safe to drive, so long as nothing else is attached to the ignition key. GM CEO Mary Barra told a Senate subcommittee this week that she would allow her teenage son to drive one of the cars before it is repaired.
But pressure has been growing on GM to ground the cars. Texas lawyer Robert Hilliard last week first asked U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos to make the automaker issue a “park it now” alert. In a court filing Friday, Hilliard cited accounts by three GM customers saying their cars stalled even after following the instructions in the automaker’s recall notices.
“Fearing that my car could turn off at any moment, I constantly checked my ignition and key while driving,” Devora Kelley, a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against GM in California, said in a declaration Hilliard filed with the court. “At least 5 times since receiving the recall notice, and even with no extra weight on the key ring, the ignition switch in my Cobalt moved from the “run” position toward “accessory” while I was driving.
Ramos at a hearing in Corpus Christi, Texas, said she would need more time to study briefs submitted by attorneys for two owners of a recalled GM car and receive documents from the carmaker's lawyers.
A “park it now” order could create a logistical challenge for GM, which has offered free loaner vehicles to customers who say they’re afraid of driving the recalled cars before repairs are performed. GM said the company had provided 13,000 loaner vehicles to customers as of Tuesday. Dealers say they already are having trouble arranging loaners for customers who have requested one.
"My biggest fear over this is that we won't be able to get all of these customers into loaners," said Jason Hachmeister, co-owner of Sterling Chevrolet in Sterling, Ill.
As of Thursday morning, seven Cobalt and HHR owners had dropped off their cars at the dealership. Two of them were put in cars from the dealership's 13-vehicle fleet; the other five were sent to Enterprise. GM will cover customers' cost for the rentals.
GM has said dealerships will be able to begin making repairs on Monday but that it will take about six months to have enough parts to fix all of the cars.
During Wednesday’s Senate hearing on the GM recall, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., pressed Barra on how much evidence it would take to convince the automaker that the affected cars should be parked immediately.
She said testing on various types of terrain at GM’s proving grounds in Milford, Mich., has given the company confidence that “this phenomenon that causes these issues will not occur” when nothing is attached to the ignition key.
“Senator, if I had any data, any incidents where with just the key, or the key and the ring, there was any risk, I would ground these vehicles across the country,” Barra said.
GM on Wednesday filed an affidavit from Antonio Antonucci, an engineer in its Field Performance Assessment department, detailing the testing used to reach that conclusion. The document says hundreds of tests were performed using various items and amounts of weight attached to the ignition key.
In more than 80 tests with nothing attached to the key, the ignition never turned to the “accessory” position, Antonucci said in the affidavit. The tests included driving over a 4-inch-tall median at speeds of up to 50 mph, crossing railroad tracks at 70 mph, and driving over potholes and other rough road surfaces. Computer simulations produced the same results, he said.
“It is my opinion to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty,” Antonucci said, “that if drivers follow the instructions in the recall notice and only use … the production ignition key with no additional items attached, the conditions required to move the ignition switch from the ‘run’ to ‘accessory’ position will not occur.”
Car kept stalling
In addition to the three owners cited in court, an Ohio woman who in 2005 persuaded GM to buy back her daughter’s Chevrolet Cobalt told Automotive News that the car stalled multiple times while being driven with just the key by itself.
“The problem continued to happen. She hit a small pothole and it turned the car off,” said Donna Justice, whose daughter Jessica bought a different car even before GM agreed to a refund on the Cobalt. “It doesn’t matter if there’s anything dangling down or not.”
Jessica Justice was one of about 90 Cobalt owners whose complaints about repeated stalling were included in a June 2013 deposition of a GM senior manager. The deposition also cited a complaint from a North Carolina woman who said a dealership’s recommendation to remove items from her keychain didn’t fix the problem.
“The first time it happened, I took it to the dealership and they didn’t know what was wrong and blamed my heavy key chain,” the complaint says. “Well, my key chain isn’t heavy anymore, and my car turned off again.”
'Tell them the truth'
Blumenthal sent mass e-mail with a video to his constituents on Thursday asking them to sign a petition demanding that GM take the 2.6 million cars it has recalled for defective ignitions off the road. The e-mail also links to a video in which Blumenthal and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., address GM directly.
“There are Americans right now driving defective cars down highways at great speeds whose lives are at risk, and they are unaware of the risk they are taking,” Markey said in the video.
Blumenthal said the recall notice “simply fails to convey the reality of these defects” and urged GM to “issue a stronger warning to drivers of recalled vehicles, inform them of the real risk they are facing. Tell them the truth that these cars shouldn’t be on the road.”
Mike Colias and Reuters contributed to this report.